“Few things are as satisfying as plucking fresh fruit or vegetables from your own garden to prepare a meal,” observes Madurai-based DD Rajeshvaran who started his urban farming journey in 2016, and was one of the first few in the city to experiment and perfect the technique of growing crops without soil, through hydroponics.
“Hydroponics is truly a blessing for areas that do not have either enough water or fertile soil for cultivation,” he adds.
Four years ago, the septuagenarian set up a futuristic soil-less and limited water-based hydroponics greenhouse in the terrace (which measures 800 sq feet) of his house in Vishwa Shanti nagar, with the help of his wife, Grace Rajesh. Today, he grows over 20 varieties of fruits and vegetables without soil by merely floating their roots inside a tube of gurgling mineral enriched water.
Setting up the dream project
In 2010, Rajesvaran, a businessman dealing in electronics and solar-power equipment, decided to expand into the food business and opened a few chain restaurants across the city. Keen on being involved in the entire process of food preparation, he found himself drawn to urban gardening.
“I always give a hundred percent in whatever I do. And, gardening was always very close to my heart. The food business provided a boost to that interest, and I began to source the best seeds, reading material on best methods of cultivation to help build my green knowledge,” he adds.
However, the idea of pursuing hydroponics was indeed a chance encounter.
“During a borewell project at home, I realised the quality of water here was quite bad and on top of it, there was also a shortage. This situation prompted me to find a way of cultivating crops with limited use of water, and that’s when I came across several interesting techniques of automated soil-less growing such as hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics. I zeroed in on hydroponics—it is already quite common in the US and Israel, and began my research to contribute to the positive trend in India,” says Rajeshvaran, who then proceeded to set up the hydroponics system in his terrace, and named the project Southern Springs Hydroponics.
While he could have chosen hydroponics techniques like the Bato bucket or Dutch bucket system, or even the single bucket deep water system, Rajeshvaran decided to employ a more complicated method known as the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT). This involves mixing of 16 types of water soluble micro and macro nutrients and trace elements, in various measures.
“It is believed that greens are the easiest to grow through hydroponics, but once you’ve got the hang of it, you can grow anything. So we started with leafy vegetables, herbs and tomatoes,” says Rajeshvaran, who is largely self-taught.
Unsure about the first yield, Rajeshvaran and his wife dedicated the next few months caring for the plants. Their labour of love finally bore fruit, when their hydroponics mini-farm welcomed its first riot of red and green in just four months.
Buoyed by the success, Rajesvaran began to grow local and foreign varieties like spinach, mint, asparagus, celery, red and green lettuce, parsley, bok choy, ladies finger, brinjal, tomato, beans, watermelon and cucumbers. He grows more than four varieties of tomatoes, including cherry tomatoes and exotic breeds like the San Marzano from Italy (also known as the plum tomatoes) and the Big Boy from UK (bigger and brighter red; great for salads).
Currently, he is waiting upon harvesting a very lucrative variety of cucumbers from the Netherlands that come with only female flowers, and promise a higher yield than other varieties.
“This method uses 90% less water than the usual but it’s not just about overcoming water shortage or land constraints, Hydroponics also helps plants grow much faster, as the roots now don’t need to search for nutrients in the soil, nor do they have to fight pests or bugs in the soil. Also, the problem of weeding is eliminated in this method and plants can grow up to any height and have maximum yield. For instance, my tomato plants grow around 10 feet tall providing a bumper yield. With careful planning one can actually grow almost a thousand plants in a limited space of 500 sq feet, using this system,” explains Rajeshvaran.
Overcoming the roadblocks to commercialization
Rajeshvaran’s Southern Springs Hydroponics project started as a hobby and soon graduated into a personal laboratory to understand the intricacies of growing food through hydroponics. However, this journey came with its own fair share of challenges.
Talking about these hiccups he says, “Temperature control is extremely important in hydroponics. In a place as hot as Madurai, that is a big challenge we had to overcome by installing a thermal insulation system and temperature control in the greenhouse. Another issue with this system is to maintain water circulation at all times. If the pump fails due to power cuts or other technical issues, the entire crop will die within hours. However, with advanced technology that allows an alarm system monitor connected to the smartphones, this can be avoided. Plus, in our case, we run the entire system on off-grid solar power, as the rest of the house, and electricity is kept on back-up.”
Rajeshvaran’s system runs on a 600 watt solar power plant, allowing for the motor to continuously run for oxygenation in the tubes, aided by four small fans inside the enclosure. He uses regular irrigation tubes for continuous water circulation, enriched with nutrients for the plants’ roots. With a one-time expenditure of Rs 4 lakh, the NFT Hydroponics system is designed to provide complete control of the temperature, humidity, nutrition, CO2, light and growing environment, to the growers.
“Unlike popular belief, a hydroponics system is rather easy to maintain as once the set-up is established all you need to do is keep the water chemistry balanced with the correct mix of nutrients, provide right seeds and maintain the correct pH of water. Plus, after each harvest it is important to clean the tubes,” adds Rajeshvaran who has already trained more than 15 interested urban growers in his technique.
He has created a starter’s kit worth Rs 3800 and a junior kit worth Rs 10,000 for beginners hoping to reap the benefits of hydroponics.
While the starter’s kit contains a 20-litre plastic basket with a cover tray, an air pump to oxygenate water, a TDS meter for checking the nutrient level and the water soluble nutrients divided into four groups of master solutions, a variety of seeds and pots to sow saplings; the junior kit is a miniature water circulating system.
Till now, he has sold over 60 pieces of the kits (mostly to friends and family) and is hoping to scale-up once the situation returns to normal.
“After four years of hard work, I still feel like I am learning new things everyday, and hopefully after things calm down, I can start the phase 2 of my dream project by taking it to more people and helping them embrace this technology of sustainable growing. This is the future,” he concludes.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)